British Columbia’s newest Rhodes Scholar will pursue a master’s degree in computational chemistry, but she says it’s also an “incredible opportunity” as a trans woman to give back to her community.
University of Victoria graduate Julia Levy said she was "blown away" when she learned she was among 11 Canadians selected for this year's Rhodes Scholarship, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious such awards.
Levy, 24, will head to Oxford University in England next October for the fully funded scholarship, a prize she said carries a special meaning because she is the country’s first trans woman Rhodes Scholar.
“I feel I am very, very proud being the first trans woman in Canada (to become a Rhodes Scholar),” said Levy, who made the transition from he to she three years ago.
While the transition was a tough journey, Levy said she is aware of the many advantages she's had.
“I think it’s really interesting to note that I am privileged in literally every other way, like my parents being supportive of my transition. I have always had financial stability and I grew up in a good part of Vancouver … maybe that’s the advantages that you need to equal out the trans part of it,” said Levy.
Levy, who graduated from the University of Victoria with a chemistry major and a minor in visual arts, described the scholarship as an “incredible opportunity and a gift,” equipping her with more knowledge and power to give back to the trans community.
“I feel my experiences of being trans and the ways that I have had to navigate the world being trans ... has given me a lot of empathy for people in crisis and people who have difficulties in their lives,” said Levy.
“I know what it is to be at the bottom in some ways and my interest in harm reduction and trans care really all comes from that place of knowing what it's like and wanting to reach out and help out where that’s possible.”
Levy is also a scientist, artist, activist, programmer, friend and daughter, she said.
"There are many parts of me that are equally important to who I am."
University of Victoria chemistry professor Jeremy Wulff supervised Levy and said she was “destined for greatness,” bringing insights to projects that led to their success.
“I'm always excited when my students are recognized with awards and fellowships, but the Rhodes award is at a whole other level," he said. "Julia is in excellent company amongst this group, and it's absolutely where she belongs."
Levy said magic can happen when you mix computation with chemistry.
In her second year at the University of Victoria, she found some classmates were struggling to picture molecules in their heads while doing peer teaching.
To help them visualize complex molecules, Levy created an augmented-reality app.
The app is a QR code in the workbook and allows the learner to see the molecule on their phone in three dimensions.
“You can work it with your phone and spin it around and zoom in and out,” said Levy.
She also worked as a technician with the university's Vancouver Island Drug-Checking Project, a drop-in service where people can bring street drugs in for chemical analysis.
Levy said the experience used her chemistry skills in a “practical and socially active way” to help more people.
“It’s an excellent example of the social use of chemistry,” said Levy.
Levy, who was travelling in Germany during the interview, said she looks forward to being surrounded by the Rhodes community and "being challenged and pushed to new heights."
“I hope I bring what makes me unique to Oxford, and that I am able to find a group of people, both personally and professionally, that celebrate that uniqueness,” said Levy.